February 03, 2011 15:40 Age: 7 yrs

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Category: Home, Maia Heyck-Merlin
By: Maia Heyck-Merlin

The phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants" has meant a number of things over the course of history. As the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit draws near, it has me thinking about Bruce McCandless and how he used the phrase when inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. He took a moment to thank everyone who contributed to his success as the first astronaut to fly in space un-tethered to another vehicle. He expressed his gratitude for those around him and those who had laid the groundwork with the words, "We have truly ridden on the shoulders of giants.” Different than when Newton originally used the phrase to thank the geniuses who went before, I use the phrase as I think McCandless meant it—the quiet heroes who have helped many of us succeed along the way. As I reflect on my second decade in education reform (started in 1999 when I joined Teach For America as a corps member), I am reminded that I would not be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for the “giants” who have trained, supported, and encouraged me over the past 12 years. As we prepare to reflect on our 20 years of progress as a movement, let’s take a few moments to thank giants who helped make us outstanding (and still learning) educators and leaders along the way.

The first giant I encountered in the summer of 1999 was Lynne Lay. When I was poking around my placement school figuring out which trailer was mine, she helped me get inside and showed me the supply closet. Ms. Lay was the reading interventionist and literacy coach at Delmont Elementary School in Baton Rouge (and went on to become principal). She literally taught me to teach fourth graders how to read. She came into my classroom and modeled great guided reading, trained me to select the right leveled books for my struggling readers, and sat on the floor with me when I cried about a fight in my classroom. Ms. Lay introduced me to books by Reggie Routman, championed my efforts to get more professional development, and helped me assess the quality of my students’ writing with a rubric! Ms. Lay went on to lead a high-performing elementary school in Baton Rouge.

The second giant I was privileged to work with was Ms. B Jackson. Truthfully, I was a little intimidated by Ms. B Jackson. We both taught fourth grade, and she had 20+ years of teaching experience. When you walked into her classroom, you could hear a pin drop. She was that teacher for whom a student—even Richard Dixon—would not DREAM of misbehaving. Once I gathered up the courage to ask her, she allowed me to observe her classroom, see her no-nonsense tone, watch her set expectations, and witness her celebrate learning. She also let me delve into the treasure trove of lesson plans she had developed over the years. My students would have never understood sedimentary rocks if Ms. B Jackson hadn’t instructed me to bake my rocks so that they were easier to break apart. I would not have survived my first year of teaching without Ms. B Jackson.

The third influential person was Heather Peske, a 1991 Teach For America alum herself. Heather had taught in Baton Rouge some years before me—and was my school director when I was training at the TFA Summer Institute. In other words, she was a big deal. Heather introduced me to a great former colleague of hers who taught at Delmont Elementary, and wrote me encouraging letters when I was frustrated with teaching in a high-stakes testing environment. She pushed and challenged me to see what was best for kids, and she showed me that the fight would not be won in one day. I pasted some of her letters in my teaching journal, and I read them when I needed a dose of perspective and a kick in the pants. She had one line that I read over and over, “Remember, even when everything around you seems without logic or hugely frustrating, your kids need you and it is why you are here.”

After I completed my two-year commitment, I moved on to teach fifth grade at a charter school in Baton Rouge. There were two more people who were instrumental to my growth as a teacher.

The first was the principal of Children’s Charter School—Jim Geiser. “Mr. Jim,” as he was known to our students, was all about kids in a way I had never seen. He would call students who were notoriously late to school and drive the Mr. Jim van to their homes to bring them in on time. He was also fiercely stubborn about how he used our school’s budget, and he refused to hire a full-time custodian—preferring that all of his teachers had full-time assistants instead. It was not uncommon to see Mr. Jim sweeping the playground in his trademark khaki shorts and baseball cap while on his cell phone with a potential donor.

The last giant in my life was Mary West—to date the best teacher I have ever encountered. I went to Children’s Charter thinking I was a reasonably good teacher. I mean, I was nominated for Teacher of the Year by my peers in my last school. In about two hours at Children’s Charter, I realized I knew NOTHING. Mary West was probably in her fifties at the time, a mid-career changer, and taught kindergarten. She arrived at school every day by 4:30 a.m. and sat in her trailer creating individual assignments for every one of her students—all of whom arrived at our school below where they needed to be for kindergarten. She wouldn’t let kids go to recess until they successfully completed their math exit tickets, and she voraciously CONSUMED any resource about teaching elementary literacy.

Together, as Teach For America alums, we have accomplished and learned a lot as an education reform movement. At the same time, for every TFA alum who developed into a great teacher, school leader or professional impacting these issues in some way, there are people who may not be alums to our movement but supported us in moving forward. I’m positive there are at least five unnamed giants who took time and energy to show each of us how to teach, motivated us when we thought it wasn’t possible, and modeled what true grit looks like on a daily basis. We need to publicly acknowledge and privately thank our allies in this movement. I know I plan on printing this letter and mailing it to Ms. Lay, Ms. B Jackson, Heather, Mr. Jim and Mary tomorrow.

Maia Heyck-Merlin is the chief operating officer at Achievement First.